A shout pulled his attention back to the track below, and he nearly lost his grip on the rock. The soldiers had bunched themselves around a small figure, humped under the weight of a small cask it bore on its shoulder. Fergus, on his way up with a cask of fresh-brewed ale. Damn, and damn again. He could have done with that ale; it had been months since he’d had any.
The wind had changed again, so he caught only small snatches of words, but the small figure seemed to be arguing with the soldier in front of him, gesticulating violently with its free hand.
“Idiot!” said Jamie, under his breath. “Give it to them and begone, ye wee clot!”
One soldier made a two-handed grab at the cask, and missed as the small dark-haired figure jumped nimbly back. Jamie smacked himself on the forehead with exasperation. Fergus could never resist insolence when confronted with authority—especially English authority.
The small figure now was skipping backward, shouting something at his pursuers.
“Fool!” Jamie said violently. “Drop it and run!”
Instead of either dropping the cask or running, Fergus, apparently sure, of his own speed, turned his back on the soldiers and waggled his rump insultingly at them. Sufficiently incensed to risk their footing in the soggy vegetation, several of the Redcoats jumped the path to follow.
Jamie saw their leader raise an arm and shout in warning. It had evidently dawned on him that Fergus might be a decoy, trying to lead them into ambush. But Fergus too was shouting, and evidently the soldiers knew enough gutter French to interpret what he was saying, for while several of the men halted at their leader’s shout, four of the soldiers hurled themselves at the dancing boy.
There was a scuffle and more shouting as Fergus dodged, twisting like an eel between the soldiers. In all the commotion and above the whining wind, Jamie could not have heard the rush of the saber being drawn from its scabbard, but ever after felt as though he had, as though the faint swish and ring of drawn metal had been the first inkling of disaster. It seemed to ring in his ears whenever he remembered the scene—and he remembered it for a very long time.
Perhaps it was something in the attitudes of the soldiers, an irritableness of mood that communicated itself to him in the cave. Perhaps only the sense of doom that had clung to him since Culloden, as though everything in his vicinity were tainted; at risk by virtue only of being near him. Whether he had heard the sound of the saber or not, his body had tensed itself to spring before he saw the silver arc of the blade swing through the air.
It moved almost lazily, slowly enough for his brain to have tracked its arc, deduced its target, and shouted, wordless, no! Surely it moved slowly enough that he could have darted down into the midst of the swarming men, seized the wrist that wielded the sword and twisted the deadly length of metal free, to tumble harmless to the ground.
The conscious part of his brain told him this was nonsense, even as it froze his hands around the granite knob, anchoring him against the overwhelming impulse to heave himself out of the earth and run forward.
You can’t, it said to him, a thready whisper under the fury and the horror that filled him. He has done this for you; you cannot make it senseless. You can’t, it said, cold as death beneath the searing rush of futility that drowned him. You can do nothing.
And he did nothing, nothing but watch, as the blade completed its lazy swing, crashed home with a small, almost inconsequential thunk! and the disputed cask tumbled end over end over end down the slope of the burn, its final splash lost in the merry gurgle of brown water far below.
The shouting ceased abruptly in shocked silence. He scarcely heard when it resumed; it sounded so much like the roaring in his ears. His knees gave way, and he realized dimly that he was about to faint. His vision darkened into reddish black, shot with stars and streaks of light—but not even the encroaching dark would blot out the final sight of Fergus’s hand, that small and deft and clever pickpocket’s hand, lying still in the mud of the track, palm turned upward in supplication.
He waited for forty-eight long, dragging hours before Rabbie MacNab came to whistle on the path below the cave.
“How is he?” he said without preliminary.
“Mrs. Jenny says he’ll be all right,” Rabbie answered. His young face was pale and drawn; plainly he had not yet recovered from the shock of his friend’s accident. “She says he’s not fevered, and there’s no trace of rot yet in the”—he swallowed audibly—“in the…stump.”
“The soldiers took him down to the house, then?” Not waiting for an answer, he was already making his way down the hillside.
“Aye, they were all amoil wi’ it—I think”—Rabbie paused to distentangle his shirt from a clinging brier, and had to hurry to catch up with his employer—“I think they were sorry about it. The Captain said so, at least. And he gave Mrs. Jenny a gold sovereign—for Fergus.”
“Oh, aye?” Jamie said. “Verra generous.” And did not speak again, until they reached the house.
Fergus was lying in state in the nursery, ensconced in a bed by the window. His eyes were closed when Jamie entered the room, long lashes lying softly against thin cheeks. Seen without its customary animation, his usual array of grimaces and poses, his face looked quite different. The slightly beaked nose above the long, mobile mouth gave him a faintly aristocratic air, and the bones hardening beneath the skin gave some promise that his face might one day pass from boyish charm to outright handsomeness.
Jamie moved toward the bed, and the dark lashes lifted at once.
“Milord,” Fergus said, and a weak smile restored his face at once to its familiar contours. “You are safe here?”
“God, laddie, I’m sorry.” Jamie sank to his knees by the bed. He could scarcely bear to look at the slender forearm that lay across the quilt, its frail bandaged wrist ending in nothing, but forced himself to grip Fergus’s shoulder in greeting, and rub a palm gently over the shock of dark hair.
“Does it hurt much?” he asked.
“No, milord,” Fergus said. Then a sudden belying twinge of pain crossed his features, and he grinned shamefacedly. “Well, not so much. And Madame has been most generous with the whisky.”
There was a tumbler full of it on the sidetable, but no more than a thimbleful had been drunk. Fergus, weaned on French wine, did not really like the taste of whisky.
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said again. There was nothing else to say. Nothing he could say, for the tightening in his throat. He looked hastily down, knowing that it would upset Fergus to see him weep.
“Ah, milord, do not trouble yourself.” There was a note of the old mischief in Fergus’s voice. “Me, I have been fortunate.”
Jamie swallowed hard before replying.
“Aye, you’re alive—and thank God for it!”
“Oh, beyond that, milord!” He glanced up to see Fergus smiling, though still very pale. “Do you not recall our agreement, milord?”
“Yes, when you took me into your service in Paris. You told me then that should I be arrested and executed, you would have Masses said for my soul for the space of a year.” The remaining hand fluttered toward the battered greenish medal that hung about his neck—St. Dismas, patron saint of thieves. “But if I should lose an ear or a hand while doing your service—”
“I would support you for the rest of your life.” Jamie was unsure whether to laugh or cry, and contented himself with patting the hand that now lay quiet on the quilt. “Aye, I remember. You may trust me to keep the bargain.”
“Oh, I have always trusted you, milord,” Fergus assured him. Clearly he was growing tired; the pale cheeks were even whiter than they had been, and the shock of black hair fell back against the pillow. “So I am fortunate,” he murmured, still smiling. “For in one stroke, I am become a gentleman of leisure, non?”
Jenny was waiting for him when he left Fergus’s room.
“Come down to the priest hole wi’ me,” he said, taking her by the elbow. “I need to talk wi’ ye a bit, and I shouldna stay in the open longer.”
She followed him without comment, down to the stone-floored back hall that separated kitchen and pantry. Set into the flags of the floor was a large wooden panel, perforated with drilled holes, apparently mortared into the floorstones. Theoretically, this gave air to the root cellar below, and in fact—should any suspicious person choose to investigate, the root cellar, reached by a sunken door outside the house, did have just such a panel set into its ceiling.
What was not apparent was that the panel also gave light and air to a small priest hole that had been built just behind the root cellar, which could be reached by pulling up the panel, mortared frame and all, to reveal a short ladder leading down into the tiny room.
It was no more than five feet square, equipped with nothing in the way of furniture beyond a rude bench, a blanket, and a chamber pot. A large jug of water and a small box of hard biscuit completed the chamber’s accoutrements. It had in fact been added to the house only within the last few years, and therefore was not really a priest hole, as no priest had occupied it or was likely to. A hole it definitely was, though.
Two people could occupy the hole only by sitting side by side on the bench, and Jamie sat down beside his sister as soon as he had replaced the panel overhead and descended the ladder. He sat still for a moment, then took a breath and started.
“I canna bear it anymore,” he said. He spoke so softly that Jenny was forced to bend her head close to hear him, like a priest receiving some penitent’s confession. “I can’t. I must go.”
They sat so close together that he could feel the rise and fall of her breast as she breathed. Then she reached out and took hold of his hand, her small firm fingers tight on his.
“Will ye try France again, then?” He had tried to escape to France twice before, thwarted each time by the tight watch the English placed on all ports. No disguise was sufficient for a man of his remarkable height and coloring.
He shook his head. “No. I shall let myself be captured.”
“Jamie!” In her agitation, Jenny allowed her voice to rise momentarily, then lowered it again in response to the warning squeeze of his hand.
“Jamie, ye canna do that!” she said, lower. “Christ, man, ye’ll be hangit!”
He kept his head bent as though in thought, but shook it, not hesitating.
“I think not.” He glanced at his sister, then quickly away. “Claire—she had the Sight.” As good an explanation as any, he thought, if not quite the real truth. “She saw what would happen at Culloden—she knew. And she told me what would come after.”
“Ah,” said Jenny softly. “I wondered. So that was why she bade me plant potatoes—and build this place.”
“Aye.” He gave his sister’s hand a small squeeze, then let go and turned slightly on the narrow seat to face her. “She told me that the Crown would go on hunting Jacobite traitors for some time—and they have,” he added wryly. “But that after the first few years, they would no longer execute the men that were captured—only imprison them.”